The trouble with being in a love affair with the movies is that you’re always trying to catch up. Just when you think you’ve curated a sturdy base of knowledge and exposures, you discover some gateway to a new genre or filmmaker which reveals what an infant you still are. I used to hate this. The allure of film for me has always been based in love – for as long as I can remember, watching movies has been as inevitable and vital as eating. But I was still the kid who couldn’t bear to lose at Trivial Pursuit, feeling (and fearing) it actually said something about how worthy I was to love the things I didn’t know enough about. I think for many self-proclaimed “movie buffs,” a very real love for movies can be accompanied by the brittle weaknesses of an addict’s personality. A lot of us would rather pretend we’ve seen The Godfather than admit a cultural touchstone has never entered our eyeballs.
The best part about growing up is you get to cut the shackles of feeling you need to lie about some aspect of who you are or what you enjoy. This year has been really weird for me. I got married in August and learned that I could tolerate, and even enjoy, a full day of attentions directed toward me. I stayed too long and stagnated in a job that was giving me little and draining me of any goodwill I had left for the world. I started this blog, which was (is) scary and exciting. My husband and I bought a telescope, fulfilling a dream that ten years ago I never would have predicted I’d have. Usually the New Year is an arbitrary and meaningless “reset” button, but this year, I actually am in limbo as 2015 becomes 2016. The benefit of this is I get time to consider what the last year has taught me, and look ahead without the benefit of the comfortable crystal ball of knowing what I’ll be doing in the future.
I don’t really have much great advice to offer these days, and I’m not much for making resolutions, but if I were to make a promise to myself right now, it would be to keep doing things for love. Because 2015 was so full of obligation, I was forced to find an outlet that expected nothing from me and gave me bang for my buck. I fell in love with the movies again. I filled what would generally be considered “gaps” in my viewing. But I did it because I wanted to, not because of a sense of inferiority. I watched The Godfather for the first time, and I’m not ashamed to say it’s taken me this long to do it. But even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be lying today and pretending I had. Who cares? Life is too short to pretend that you’re “better” than you are. Looking through my telescope has given me some real perspective on how blip-ish our lives are compared to the timescales of our universe. If you spend five minutes lying to say you’ve experienced something you haven’t, that’s five minutes you could have spent talking about something you’re actually interested in. Or five minutes you could have spent watching The Godfather, which is awesome, by the way.
Here, for the sake of love and nothing but, are some the films I saw for the first time that most impacted me in 2015.
Mr. Turner (2014), Another Year (2010), Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) – Dir. Mike Leigh
Before this year, the only Mike Leigh film I had seen was 2004’s Vera Drake. I haven’t seen the film since the first time I watched it at 18, and while I remember admiring the movie, I probably wasn’t eager to soak up more from a filmmaker so capable of running me through the emotional wringer (especially at such a fluctuating time in my life). Nowadays I’m practically begging for the movies to entangle my emotions, and in my willingness to watch nearly any costume drama or biopic, I sat down with my husband to watch Mr. Turner. I am hesitant to even use the oft-tainted word “biopic” in reference to this film, because while I’m sure it follows to some degree the timeline of events in the life of English painter J.M.W. Turner, I doubt very much that what we see on screen is reflective of the particular eccentricities of the actual Turner. Timothy Spall, an actor with the face and body of a latter-day Laughton, plays Turner with such repressed ferocity in one moment, and such gregarious love in the next, that it’s hard to peg exactly what kind of events in Turner’s life could have led him to such a distinctive and yet enigmatic personality. My husband found he couldn’t connect with the character, but two key scenes pulled me in with a painful gut-punch: the first, when Turner, with a graveled and shaky voice, sings Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament,” eyes glassed over with a faraway and yet completely self-aware look of pain and tenderness. And the second, when Turner is approached with anger by his estranged family for not attending the funeral of his daughter. Spall’s back is turned to the audience during this scene, and the tense indifference he portrays in his limited speech to his family is betrayed by the nervous and grasping hands only we can see clasped behind his back. Turner is a man ever-grasping, never-gripping onto life. He is an artist so deeply full of stifled emotion that it can only slip out in furtive bursts, either through his art or in the moments when he quite literally reaches out to grab and take whatever it is he wants.
Two other Leigh films were utter joys for me in 2015. Another Year and Happy-Go-Lucky, unlike Mr. Turner, are about completely inauspicious characters, leading normal and mundane lives full of daily chores and awkward moments. Another Year follows a happily married, long-term couple (played with such realistic tenderness by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) as they tend to their garden, entertain guests, and offer helping hands to their friends. Lesley Manville plays Mary, an acquaintance of the couple who will remind you of every troubled and hopeless friendship you’ve ever maintained at least partly out of a sense of pity. Broadbent and Sheen play their characters with such nuanced kindness that you can only pray that your own marriage holds up like theirs, while Manville’s Mary embodies the lonely and co-dependent personality I think we all have a bit of fear of becoming. To describe the plot of the film here would be to undersell it, so I will only say that once the final scene turned to credits, I felt such a sense of empathetic concern and a feeling of emotional familiarity with the characters that I couldn’t go to sleep that night. Happy-Go-Lucky, the last of the three Leigh films I watched last year, was somewhat less impactful but no less enjoyable. I recommend it particularly for Eddie Marsan’s performance as Scott, the completely bizarre, conspiracy-obsessed, racist, and hilarious driving instructor to Sally Hawkins’ unshakable Poppy.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) – Dir. Hayao Miyazaki
Since Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away came out in 2001, I’ve enjoyed almost the entirety of his ouevre, with the exception of the film that would have made him a legend of animation regardless of what came afterward – 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro. I probably skipped it for so long because I perceived it to be a film for kids, which it is, but I find as I get older that movies about the simple discoveries of children can pack a major wallop for adults. Miyazaki’s films don’t engage in the same kind of emotional manipulation as a modern-day Pixar movie (I’m not complaining – I love being emotionally manipulated). Instead, unexpected moments of profundity arise from simple moments of magic – Totoro, a forest spirit that looks a bit like an over-sized gerbil, helping two young sisters (Satsuki and Mei) grow a garden overnight, or the younger sister Mei running away to take an ear of corn to her mother who is sick in hospital. I think a Disney diet needs to be supplanted with princess-less films like these, and if I had any kids in my life (not yet), I’d be happily watching this over and over with them, unashamedly crying on the couch.
The River (1951) – Dir. Jean Renoir
I wrote a little bit about The River in a previous post (which you can find here). It’s a film about connections and cycles, and rather fittingly for me it had the effect of connecting several films I love together in a sort of artistic stream-of-consciousness (that I explain much better in the post I just linked to). I can still remember the first time I read Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables” as a child. I vividly recall closing myself in my bedroom in the late afternoon, the light streaming over my pine headboard and the dust floating past my eyes as I thrilled with Anne over the puffiness of her dress sleeves. I think if I had seen The River at that same age, I too would have remembered that moment forever. Harriet (Patricia Walters), the young heroine and narrator of The River, will connect with any young girl who hides in her room to write poetry or wonders why she can’t be more beautiful.
Wings of Desire (1987) – Dir. Wim Wenders
Wings of Desire, made two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, shows us what it would be like (literally, in one lurching and peaceful move of the camera) to drift over the political and emotional borders of our hardened, temporal world and see things omnisciently and without barriers. I think angels are so appealing to the human psyche because they can see us, and all things, for what they truly are, and because of that they can pity and care for us in ways that no human could. Of course what we don’t consider is that for the angels, listening to the inner thoughts of mortals for an eternity is something of a burden and a bore. Wim Wenders’ angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) have heard and seen it all, wandering and observing Berlin as they have across the centuries. Of course, mortality has its pleasures, which eventually become a lure for Damiel as he watches and falls for the lonely circus artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin). Wings of Desire was less an emotional experience for me than a contemplative one. The angels existed before us, and they will exists after. What do our endless internal monologues amount to in the grand scheme of time? This film has more delights than you might imagine based on its premise – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, for example. And my favourite – Peter Falk, playing a version of himself. To hear his internal monologues, in that recognizable-anywhere voice…how wonderful.
M (1931) – Dir. Fritz Lang
You know those movies where you’re always saying “I’m not in the mood for that one right now?” That’s been M for me in the past few years. I finally figured that there would never be a “mood” for a child serial-murderer movie, so I bit the proverbial bullet and watched it. Has there ever been a weirder guy in the movies than Peter Lorre? I mean that as a loving compliment – the movies are richer when there are weird people in them. A surprising number of the films I watched in 2015 were either about childhood discovery or childhood loss, but usually from the perspective of the child. M is pretty much the opposite of that – a tale of a disturbing and, how do you say, creepy-as-fuck child killer and a society that’s out for blood when it comes to that particular brand of crime. I also enjoyed Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners (2013) last year, and watching M makes you realize how much the modern suspense film owes to Fritz Lang. There’s a shot so inventive, creepy, and revealing in M that it quite literally took my breath away. If you want a double-bill of utter creepitude, just follow this one up with The Night of the Hunter (1955) and you’ve got yourself one helluva Halloween.
Heaven Can Wait (1943) – Dir. Ernst Lubitsch
I have no idea why it’s taken so many years for this movie to cross my path. It’s so completely gorgeous, hilarious, wise and grown-up from start to finish that I wish I’d seen it years ago. Henry van Cleve (Don Ameche, more handsome and charming here than he ever was anywhere else, except perhaps decades later in Cocoon), a lady-loving playboy, finds himself dead and sent to the waiting room of Hell after a lifetime of enjoyment of the finer things. Convinced his life is not one of exemplary morals worthy of a ticket of admission to Heaven, he honestly recounts his life story of growing up spoiled by a wealthy family. Spring Byington, Louis Calhern, Charles Coburn, and Allyn Joslyn (as Henry’s mother, father, grandfather, and cousin) are absolutely pitch-perfect in their roles. After Henry runs away with his cousin’s fiancee, Martha (Gene Tierney, oh sweet Gene Tierney), the film recounts poignant moments from their complicated and loving marriage. Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette, as Martha’s wealthy, bickering Kansas-bred parents, are easily the funniest portrayers of a marriage-gone-sour I’ve ever seen.
I said earlier that I wish I had seen this film years ago, but perhaps it wouldn’t have had such a delightful impact on me had I not already been in a loving relationship for several years. I know I’ll be coming back to Heaven Can Wait for years to come.
Bicycle Thieves (1948) – Dir. Vittorio De Sica
What could I say about Bicycle Thieves that hasn’t already be said? The best and most basic compliment I can give it is that every time my husband is scanning through our DVD shelf, he’ll stop at Bicycle Thieves, sigh, and go “Ugh, what a good movie.” For a tender-hearted person like myself, it’s a film that is almost too much to bear, so realistically does it force you to put yourself in empathy with someone for whom a simple object – in this case, a bicycle – is the final shield between a life of survival and a life of failure and destitution. I could cry for days at the scene where the desperate father and son (Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola) pause for a moment in their search for the father’s stolen bicycle to eat mozzarella sandwiches. Do you remember a moment in your life when you discovered that your parents were faulted and human, and they realized that you knew it, and it was uncomfortable and sad for everyone involved? Bicycle Thieves is that moment played out unflinchingly for an hour and a half. Don’t bother wearing mascara for this one.
Nostalgia for the Light (2010) – Dir. Patricio Guzman
I tend to watch a lot of movies that would be classified as sad or dark. One time someone asked me how I can watch all the tragic stuff I do, and all I could think to respond was “because it’s true.” I’ve mentioned this before, and I’ll mention it again on this blog I’m sure, but last year I became the proud owner of a telescope. Looking at the stars through a perfectly-polished mirror is a privilege (an affordable one, but still an absolute privilege), and many struggle to understand why someone would spend time looking to the stars when this little planet has so many problems that we can’t seem to escape. Nostalgia for the Light is a documentary that grapples with that struggle as it explores the dichotomy between the perfect stargazing conditions of the Atacama desert in Chile and the dedicated, heartbroken women who spend their remaining years raking that same desert for the bone fragments of loved ones murdered by the Pinochet dictatorship. Looking at the stars, and looking into the ground, are acts of perspective. One without the other is, to human life, meaningless. Claiming land for the purposes of scientific research is a difficult and sometimes fraught battle between competing interests, but for the researchers of the stars, and the mothers of long-disappeared sons, the search is the for the same purpose: to find the truth, in all its pains and complications.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) – Dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
2015 was a year of glorious Technicolor for me. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a film so beautiful on the surface, and so beautifully human underneath, that the second it was over my husband and I both agreed it was one of those films you could just start again immediately after it was finished. Like Heaven Can Wait, it’s something of a life-review movie, which follows Roger Livesey’s Clive Wynne-Candy (first a lieutenant, then a brigadier general, then a major general) through three major wars. This is not a “war film” in the cliched, storm-the-beaches sense of the term. Instead, it’s a film about love lost and gained, the value of maintaining friendships over creating enemies, and what happens to men when they out-age the times they live in. Roger Livesey gives one of the best and most believable long-term-aging-of-a-character performances I’ve ever seen, and Anton Walbrook is lovely and heartbreaking as Wynne-Candy’s nemesis-turned-friend Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff. In The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Powell and Pressburger made a film so unconcerned by the expectations of audiences that even a seemingly standard duel sequence is turned on its head as the camera pulls away from a climactic swordfight to drift through the snowy night and into the carriage of another character. The currently available Criterion edition has been beautifully restored (see Martin Scorsese talk a little bit about that process here), and while at the beginning of this piece I advised you to enjoy what you love and damn the rest, of this film I say – do yourself a favor, don’t miss it.